Why has it taken so long to set a Jason Statham movie in New York City? Statham, seemingly the last of the dying breed of kick-ass action heroes, plays his typical subdued Daniel Craig Bond-meets-John McClane character in Safe, and that’s only part of the reason why it’s a hell of a lot of fun. What keeps Statham’s movies so fresh is that his character is always thrown into a different set of compelling circumstances — and Safe is no exception.
Statham plays Luke Wright, an MMA fighter who won a fight he was expected to lose and pisses off the Russian mob because of that. After taking away all he has in retaliation, they spend the next year tailing him to ensure his life remains miserable — which, now that I think about it, is a lot harsher of a punishment than it has any right to be. But anyway, let’s go with it. During his self-imposed exile as a homeless man on the streets of New York, Wright crosses paths with Mei (Catherine Chan), a young Chinese girl with a genius ability with numbers who is utilized by Chinese crimelord Han Jiao (James Hong) to memorize his accounts. The Russian mob wants information that she has in her head, and when Wright sees this young girl caught in the crossfire between two gangs, well, we soon learn that there is a lot more to Wright than being a homeless ex-cage fighter.
In fact, part of the film’s fun is how Statham’s past slowly unravels for the viewer. It involves the police department, including the crooked Captain Wolf (Robert John Burke), who tries playing the Russians and the Chinese mobs against each other for his own benefit. It’s a testament to writer/director Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) that he keeps the story compelling, yet easy to follow.
This role is naturally suited for Statham who can bring both the necessary physicality and the ability to deliver his required one-liners in such a way that they don’t come off as cheesy. Two-thirds into the film he even makes eating a sandwich look intimidating. Of course, he also brings his A-game in the fight scenes, a few of which — including one in a subway car — are some of the best choreographed fight scenes I’ve seen in an American film in years. I thought I’ve seen it all with household objects being used as weapons, but Safe showed me a few surprises.
But along with Wright, the best character in the movie is New York City itself. The New York City of Safe isn’t the Disney-sanitized Time Square of 2012, it’s the gritty cesspool of 1970s action films. The movie even harkens back to The French Connection, with probably the best New York City car chase scene since Popeye Doyle was behind the wheel. Of course, it does suffer from some of the typical problems movies set in New York City have — the streets are apparently clear of traffic lights, subways conveniently only stop when a lengthy scene requires them to stop, and the mayor delivers the line “Close every exit out of Manhattan!” as if he truly believes such a thing would be possible — but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief (and put up with Catherine Chan’s acting, which isn’t particularly good — but hey, she’s young, and Yakin knows to keep her quiet so she doesn’t become the token annoying kid sidekick), you’ll love Safe.
Rating: Statham’s best since the Crank films (8.5/10)